On the Podium: Richard Mendez

By Denise Sechelski

2008 Austin Marathon

2008 Austin Marathon

If you’ve been a Gazelle for any length of time, you’ve heard the name. You know the award. You hear a lot about the name in December, when the call goes out to vote for the next recipient of The Richard Mendez Award, given to the Gazelle voted by the membership to most embody the Gazelle spirit of generosity and service to others. To be the namesake of an award bestowed on the Gazelle of the Year is saying a lot: Gilbert’s Gazelles are a high-achieving group of people when it comes to going above and beyond. So who is the person behind the name that’s on the front of the plaque (it’s actually a plate) handed out each year since 2010?

Richard Mendez, with a big smile and easy manner, is as nice as you would think someone would be who has an award named after him. A talented runner (in a family of talented runners: his niece just qualified for the marathon Olympic Trails and his father owns a 2:53 marathon PR and also ran Boston), devoted son (he brought his parents to the Gazelle Christmas party!), successful professional (Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport), and doer of good, Richard is as humble as he is accomplished. In fact, a refrain you often hear when one of his generous acts is revealed is “Oh, that was Richard?!” He often operates under the radar, leaving a trail of kindness behind him while shunning self-puffery.

Richard and Gilbert have known each other for a long time. In 2001, a year before Gilbert’s Gazelles was born, Richard was running with a friend on the hike-and-bike trail. They finished their run—and Gilbert happened to be finishing a run at the same time. Neither Richard nor his friend knew Gilbert, but they struck up a conversation that ended with Gilbert going to have barbeque at the home of Richard’s friend. It was the happiest of accidents. Richard and Gilbert have been friends ever since.

2002 Decker Challenge with Gilbert

2002 Decker Challenge with Gilbert

Richard began training with Gilbert, but he had started running decades before. “I ran a mile race in sixth grade and got second place,” Richard recalls, “and I’ve been running pretty consistently since then.” That might be an understatement. Richard admits to a competitive nature, and his focus on running was consuming. “I used to run so much,” he says, “it was kind of crazy.” His intensity led to some very fast results. “Richard is one of the top five, maybe top three, Gazelles of all time with his times,” Gilbert says. Richard acknowledges that he’s proud of his 2:40 marathon PR (Austin Marathon) and his 1:12 half marathon (3M on the old course). “I don’t worry as much about running now,” he says. “I’ve done some good things.”

2006 Freescale Half Marathon

2006 Freescale Half Marathon

Like many Gazelles, his favorite workout is the fartlek run, and even in this choice is the gesture of helping others. “When you take your turn, you’re a rock star,” he says with a smile. “Everybody is genuinely happy for you and supportive.” These days Richard enjoys running to stay in shape and see his friends. “Running is a social outlet,” he says. “Runners are friendly people. You can have a conversation. You can connect. It makes you have faith in people again.”

But the running side of Richard is only part of his Gazelle story. Richard takes his idea of connecting to people and stretches it from a run with buddies, to the Gazelles as a group, out to total strangers. Gilbert is a model of giving, and Richard describes his influence, “I think Gilbert probably made me more of a giving person, because I want to help people.” And Richard does, indeed, help. “Richard is exceptional and special in so many ways,” Gilbert says. “And he never asks for recognition.”

When asked for his thoughts about Richard, Coach settles in, clearly delighted to share his thoughts about his longtime friend.

“One perfect example of what he does was at the Christmas party,” Gilbert says. “Richard wanted to cook for everybody. He made all of the food for the tacos, brought his hot grill to cook the tortillas, and he cooked all evening, all night, for everyone.” He paused and added emphatically, “The man likes to give.”

Gilbert then reached farther back in time for one of his favorite Richard stories—a classic, really—this time about an Austin Marathon from years ago. “Kenyans come to the race with the hope of winning prize money,” Gilbert explained. “So that year, they came, and there was one who, at the end of the race, had nowhere to go. He knew someone in Michigan but no one in Austin. He had no money, no connections. So everyone looked at me: ‘you’re a runner, you’re African!’ I was living in the two-bedroom apartment at the time with my family and didn’t have much room, but I took the Kenyan to live with us.”

Gilbert warms to the memories, “So then Richard takes him in. He took the Kenyan to his house, gave up his own bed for him to sleep in. He drives the guy to meet me for runs. Richard made everything so great for this guy, he didn’t want to go back to Kenya!”

Gilbert paused, “Richard gives his time, always.”

The third piece of the Richard story is the coaching: his own role as a leader with the strength and core workout, as well as his willingness to help Gilbert with workouts. Again, Richard’s running and giving instincts intersect. He was doing core work and strengthening long before there was a boot camp in every strip mall and a guy with a medicine ball every ten feet in Zilker Park. Richard started the Gazelle core class a decade ago, initially holding three sessions a week. Now he leads the Friday morning 5:30am class.

 Developing and maintaining core strength is Richard’s favorite piece of advice to runners, whether beginners or seasoned veterans. “Core strength makes you stronger,” he says. “It gives you a mental advantage.” His other best piece of advice: rest. “Don’t overdo it,” he cautions. “Stretch. Prevent injury.”

“He cares for the group and for everyone to get stronger, to stay injury-free, to be faster,” Gilbert explains. “We are better as a team; better, stronger runners; better people, because of Richard.”

Richard has also served as substitute coach, especially when Gilbert was traveling for speaking engagements tied to the publication of his book. Gilbert recalls, “He’d say ‘I’ve got your back,’ so I wouldn’t have to find someone to fill in. And he would not take any penny. He would never let me pay him.”

Gilbert stops, clearly moved by his thoughts of this long association, “It’s hard to say what kind of man he is.”

The inscription on the plate given to the winner of The Richard Mendez Award reads, “One who displays great passion, sacrifice and dedication to Gazelles through their tireless efforts to help others become better.” Gilbert says with conviction, “It’s named The Richard Mendez Award because Richard exemplifies what it means to be a true humanitarian, a true man of integrity. He exemplifies what the words on the plate mean.”

When asked how it feels to have the Gazelle award named for him, Richard admits, “I’m a little embarrassed.” Then he adds, “But it feels good.”

And with a typically modest revelation, he smiles and says sheepishly, “It took me a few years to figure out that it was named for me!”

Coach sums up: “Richard gives from the heart. He’s a man of integrity. He leads by example, always sacrificing: his bed to the Kenyan, his time every Friday morning for the core class, his time to help me, whatever.”

“I have known him the longest, and what he stands for, what he does for our community…. It’s a privilege to call him a friend.”

Susan RoweComment